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Cultural Heritage Ethics

Constantine Sandis

I. Meaning and Memory

2. Poppy Politics: Remembrance of Things Present

James Fox

Texte intégral

1In October 2011 the English football association requested permission from FIFA (the International Football Federation) for its national team to wear poppies on their shirts when they played Spain the following month. Poppies had been worn across Britain every November for the best part of a century, having been an integral part of the nation’s remembrance of its war dead since 1921. FIFA, however, was unmoved by such traditions, and immediately rejected the request. In an official statement the organisation asserted that in line with its existing regulations, players’ equipment could not ‘carry any political, religious or commercial messages’ for fear that they would ‘jeopardise the neutrality of football’.1

2The decision triggered an outcry. The British press published a series of enraged editorials, and before long politicians took up the cause as well. On Tuesday 8 November the government’s sports minister Hugh Robertson told FIFA that the poppy was ‘not religious or political in any way’. Later that day Prime Minister David Cameron declared that it was ‘absurd’ to think that ‘wearing a poppy to remember those who have given their lives for our freedom is a political act’. And only hours after that, Prince William wrote directly to FIFA, stating that the poppy was a ‘universal symbol of remembrance’ with ‘no political, religious or commercial connotations’.2

3Under ever increasing pressure, FIFA – whose reputation had barely recovered from a recent corruption scandal – quickly capitulated. On Wednesday 9 November it gave permission for poppies to be worn, with the proviso that they were attached to black armbands rather than embroidered directly onto players’ shirts.3 Yet when the match was played three days later, poppies were not just restricted to armbands: a poppy wreath was placed on the pitch before kick-off; players wore poppy-embroidered training tops and poppy-embossed anthem jackets; poppies were attached to scoreboards and advertising hoardings; and poppy-sellers were positioned in conspicuous locations around the stadium.4

4The debacle is a highly revealing case study in cultural heritage for two reasons. First, it showed that in less than a century, Remembrance had established itself as such a powerful cultural force that any challenge to it – however trivial it may have seemed – had the potential to cause a national furore. Second, the incident indicated that most Britons considered Remembrance to be a resolutely apolitical practice – little more than an ethical duty to the dead. This chapter, however, will take issue with these sentiments. By exploring the origins, development and current heritage rhetoric surrounding the remembrance poppy, I will demonstrate that the poppy has always been, and continues to be, a profoundly political symbol.


5Most accounts of the remembrance poppy begin in the spring of 1915. The first winter of the Great War was just winding to a close, and the battlefields of the Western front were wastelands. Pastures had been turned to mud, wildlife had all but been obliterated, and underneath the agitated earth lay the bodies of countless dead servicemen. Nevertheless, as the weather improved through April and May of that year, something unexpected happened: red corn poppies began to bloom in huge numbers across the fields. It is believed, somewhat ironically, that the season’s unusually abundant crop had been germinated by the very bombardments that had wreaked so much natural damage elsewhere.

  • 5 For the full and often disputed story behind the poem, see John F. Prescott, In Flanders Fields: T (...)

6Poppies, of course, had long possessed symbolic properties. Since antiquity they had been associated with sleep, death and resurrection. So when one amateur poet saw the flower blossoming across Flanders, he set about reconfiguring its ancient connotations for the new wartime context. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian medical officer serving in Ypres. He first noticed the region’s poppies in May 1915 while burying a friend who had been killed in action. Shortly afterwards, McCrae composed a poem, which he called In Flanders Fields.5 The poem appeared later that year in Punch magazine, and before long was widely known and admired. Inspired by the funeral he had just attended, McCrae started the poem by juxtaposing the death of men with the birth of the poppies:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark out place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

7McCrae’s intention was clear. Like many poets before him, he was invoking pastoral imagery as an antithesis to the war. It is in fact tempting to read his poppies as pacifistic symbols: of nature defeating man, peace defeating war, and life defeating death. This interpretation, however, is dramatically disproved by reading on. In the second verse, McCrae establishes the poem as the voice of the dead, and then, in the third and final verse, he recounts the message they wish to communicate to the living:

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

8It is, by any reasoning, an abrupt shift in tone, for it is here that an initially elegiac text is transformed into something altogether more belligerent. McCrae’s interred soldiers are, after all, calling on the living to avenge their deaths. For this reason, his poem does not condemn war but legitimises it; does not demand the conflict to end but demands that it continues; and though McCrae mourns the loss of life, he calls for yet more sacrifice to come.

  • 6 An example of this interpretation is found in Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxfor (...)

9John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields is responsible for first establishing the cultural connection between poppies and the Great War. However, its author deployed the former as a smokescreen behind which he could legitimise the latter. Written early in the war when hopes were still high, volunteers were still needed, and the outcome of the conflict was far from decided, his poem was little more than a propagandistic recruitment call.6 It is therefore hardly surprising that his words – and his poppy imagery – were soon enlisted in North America and Great Britain to sell war bonds and recruit volunteers. The poppy’s wartime origins were nowhere near as peaceful as we often like to think.

  • 7 See Moina Michael, The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Field Memorial Poppy (Philadelphi (...)

10If anyone was responsible for converting McCrae’s propagandistic poppy into today’s remembrance poppy, it was the American academic and humanitarian Moina Michael. Michael had read In Flanders Fields as the allies were finalising their victory in November 1918, and she was convinced that the conflict’s outcome had vindicated its author’s rallying cry. She even went so far as to draft a poem in response to McCrae’s interred soldiers, writing that the victors had ‘caught the torch’ that they had thrown and ‘kept the faith’ when others had lost it. So while her poem may well be a heartfelt salute to the dead, it is also a defence of their sacrifice: Michael, in short, was implying that the war’s many casualties were justified because they had been in the service of victory. And that is why her poem, though now called We Shall Keep the Faith, was referred to by contemporaries as The Victory Emblem.7

11Shortly after composing The Victory Emblem, Michael purchased twenty-five silk poppies at a New York department store and distributed them in honour of the dead. Her memorial flowers soon caught on around the world: from the United States in November 1918, they arrived in France in October 1920, and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain in 1921. Tellingly, all of these countries were victors. The poppy never found its way into the cultural practices of the war’s defeated nations, and that may be because the only men whose sacrifice was believed to deserve such a symbol were those who had fought on the ‘right’ side. Poppies, in other words, had been converted into victory medals. And if doubts still linger over the partisan politics of the memorial poppy, one only need name the person who introduced it to Britain: Field Marshall Douglas Haig – a man who had a vested interest in justifying the conflict to whose victory he had so controversially contributed.

12The first part of this chapter has proved that it is far from easy to claim that the remembrance poppy was born out of a universal and apolitical heritage moment. It was conceived when the war was still young and when volunteers still had to be recruited; it was deployed during the following three years to mobilise, raise morale, and legitimise the increasingly unpopular conflict; and in the war’s aftermath it was reformulated as a symbol that commemorated the Allied dead precisely as it celebrated the Allied victory. And thus, for all of its pacifistic associations today, the poppy was a thoroughly bellicose symbol from the start: a medal of honour as well as a bleeding wound. But these associations did not expire with the conflict. In the decades after the end of the Great War, the poppy acquired yet more political significance, and yet more public prominence.

13One way to demonstrate the poppy’s growing popularity through the decades is to examine the statistics for the Royal British Legion’s annual poppy appeal. They reveal that its campaign has raised ever-increasing sums across the century of its existence, from £ 106,000 in 1921 to a staggering £ 40 million in 2011. These figures suggest that despite receding ever further into the past, the rituals of remembrance that originated with the First World War are more relevant than ever. The question that remains is why? Why, after so much else has happened, after so many other seminal events have come and gone, do the British people remain so fixated on the Flanders poppy? The answer, I think, lies less in the wars of the past than it does in the wars of the present.

  • 8 These figures were given to me by the Royal British Legion.

14The British Legion’s statistics show that its poppy appeals have nearly always been more successful when they have taken place during ongoing conflicts. The pattern began with the Second World War. Through the 1920s and most of the 1930s, the British Legion’s campaign income had grown only modestly. In the war years, however, that figure almost doubled, from £ 578,188 in 1938 to over £ 1 million in 1945. A comparable leap, of almost twenty percent, was recorded between 1981 and 1982, during the Falklands War; and there was another substantial increase between 1989 (£ 11.9 million) and 1991 (£ 13.1 million), the years that spanned the first Gulf War. More recently, figures have followed the same trend. At the very beginning of the millennium, poppy appeal income remained relatively static at between £ 20 million and £ 21 million each year; in the second half of the decade, when major wars were being fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq, that number virtually doubled, to £ 40 million.8

15The Royal British Legion’s figures should not be surprising. After all, its poppy appeal commemorates those who have died in all modern and ongoing conflicts, and its funds support active servicemen and living veterans. Moreover, in order to boost its public relevance and thus its financial success, the organisation makes frequent and explicit connections between the remembrance of past wars and the honouring of present ones. In one official statement, it claimed the following:

We remember those who fought for our freedom during the two World Wars. But we also mourn and honour those who have lost their lives in more recent conflicts. Today, with troops on duty in Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the world, Remembrance… [is]… as important as ever.9

16The sentiment is doubtless honourable, and the British Legion’s fund-raising figures confirm that it has also been highly effective. Nevertheless, at the same time the passage suggests that the poppy has become a problematic nexus in which past and present, poetry and policy, are uneasily intertwined.

17In recent years, the poppy’s linkage between past wars and present wars has proved particularly controversial. With the outbreak of unpopular conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Britons came to question the political role that the poppy appeared to be playing. Some claimed that by connecting the ‘justifiable’ world wars of the past to the ‘unjustifiable’ anti-terrorist wars of the present, the poppy enabled the former to legitimise the latter. In November 2010 a group of six veterans, who had between them served in Northern Ireland, Dhofar, the Falklands, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq, went so far as to write a letter to the British press:

The poppy appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars… The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of ‘our Heroes’… There is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.10

  • 11 ‘Stop the War bids to reclaim 11.11.11 Remembrance Day for peace’, 6 November 2011, http://web.arc (...)

18This view became so widespread that in the following November the influential ‘Stop the War Coalition’ re-introduced white poppies as an alternative to red poppies. While the red poppy marked only British military casualties, the white poppy – with its traditionally pacifistic connotations – commemorated all humans who had died as a result of all conflicts, as an anti-war symbol.11

  • 12 These arguments were made by the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. ‘Remembran (...)

19The anti-war criticisms of the poppy are not always entirely accurate. The assertion that remembrance was initially about peace and was only recently ‘subverted’ is contradicted by the poppy’s bellicose origins; similarly, the claim that British politicians ‘hijacked’ the symbol to justify their own wars remains difficult to prove.12 After all, the British Legion – which administers the poppy appeal – remains steadfastly independent of government. Nevertheless, the very fact that these debates have occurred is proof that the poppy has acquired a raft of controversial political associations. They also reflect the fact that, whether by design or not, the poppy has indeed emboldened the warmongers’ cause: for how can one honour the men and women who have died in war and not end up endorsing the conflicts in which they have fought?

  • 13 A. Bloxham, ‘Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice protest’, The Telegra (...)
  • 14 ‘Poppy row: English Defence League climb onto roof of FIFA HQ’, The Mirror, 9 November 2011, http: (...)

20The poppy is now such a pregnant symbol of heritage that its ideological reverberations have spread far beyond debates about the legitimacy of individual conflicts; they have come to invade and influence the many fault-lines elsewhere in British society. Immigrant groups, particularly Muslims, have started to reject the poppy as a symbol of western imperialism. At one demonstration in November 2010, the group ‘Muslims against Crusades’ even went to the lengths of burning a large model poppy as the rest of the nation entered its annual two-minute silence.13 At the same time, rightwing groups like the British National Party and the English Defence League have appropriated the poppy as a symbol of militant nationalism. Indeed, following FIFA’s refusal to permit English footballers to wear poppies in 2011, two members of the English Defence League climbed on to the roof of FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich and brandished a banner that read: ‘English Defence League: How dare FIFA disrespect our war dead and wounded’.14

  • 15 Revd Tomas Walsh, ‘Lest we forget who they honour’, Irish Independent, 14 November 2007, http://ww (...)

21The poppy is surely most controversial in Northern Ireland. Here, the British Army has been a divisive institution for decades, having played an often violent role in policing clashes between Unionists and Nationalists since 1969. For this reason, the high-profile commemoration of British servicemen has only intensified the rancour between the two groups. Most Nationalists consider the poppy to be deeply offensive because, as Revd Tomas Walsh has claimed, many of the soldiers it honours had ‘colluded with loyalist murder squads… and killed hundreds of innocent Irish people’.15 In fact, Remembrance has been such an inflammatory symbol of British power in Ireland that in 1987 the Irish Republican Army targeted it specifically, detonating a bomb at the Enniskillen war memorial on Remembrance Sunday and killing twelve people. Yet in Northern Ireland the poppy means much more than simply an attitude to the British army; it has become a powerful marker of identity in a region where identity is so fiercely contested: Unionists embrace it as an emblem of Britishness, Protestantism and Monarchism, while Nationalists reject it as an assertion of their Irishness, Catholicism and Republicanism.

22Poppies do not only mediate identity at the political extremes; they are custodians of national heritage and identity in the mainstream as well. The paper flower may well remind British people of the nation’s darkest moments, but it also reminds them of the nation’s finest moments: the hard-won victories of the First World War; the Battle of Britain; the D-Day landings – all of which have become integral components of British national identity. This is surely why, when politicians defended the poppy following FIFA’s initial ruling, their phrases were soaked in such patriotism. Immediately after claiming that the poppy was not political ‘in any way’, the government’s sport minister Hugh Robertson declared that it was nonetheless ‘a display of national pride, just like wearing your country’s football shirt’.16 His argument was as perplexing as it was revealing, not least because it is patently incorrect to think of ‘national pride’ as an apolitical sentiment. Moreover, by likening poppies to football shirts Robertson was implying that the former, like the latter, was the uniform of a patriotic and competitive team that its supporters cheered on at the expense of others. His words thus endorsed what they had intended to refute: that beneath a thin façade of universal grief and quiet humility, the poppy remained the red badge of a belligerent nationalism.

  • 17 Paul Revoir, ‘I won’t surrender to “Poppy Fascism”: C4 News host Jon Snow refuses to bow to viewer (...)

23The FIFA scandal reveals one more political dimension of the poppy: that much-pilloried bugbear of political correctness. In recent years poppy-wearing has become an increasingly ubiquitous cultural practice. In Britain, television presenters rarely appear on camera without them in the month of November; politicians have started wearing them earlier and earlier every year (and have at times been humiliated by doing so before the official start of the British Legion’s appeal); and as the FIFA row demonstrated, even sportsmen now seem unable to compete without them. The last development is particularly recent: indeed, when the English football team played Brazil at the same time in November two years earlier, the poppies that in 2011 seemed so essential were neither requested nor worn. It is, then, only in the last few years that poppies have fully tightened their grip on British cultural life. While this ubiquity is undeniably good news for the Royal British Legion, it does cast some doubt on the politics of Remembrance. It is not only that in such a climate individuals might wear poppies for performative rather than contemplative reasons; it is also that the increasingly obligatory nature of poppy-wearing sits uneasily with the ‘freedom’ for which the wars it commemorates were allegedly fought. Indeed, one disgruntled British journalist famously described the pressure to fall into line as nothing short of ‘poppy fascism’.17

24This brief essay has shown that in spite of the many claims to the contrary, the poppy is a potent political symbol. It was born out of a desire to promote, prolong and propagandise the Great War, and in the conflict’s aftermath it was reconfigured as a medal of triumph that celebrated the Allied victory. As the First World War receded into the past, the poppy acquired affiliations with the agendas of succeeding governments, and in the new millennium it is believed to have helped legitimise unpopular conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the poppy’s political connotations have spread far beyond war. In an increasingly diverse Britain, it has been violently appropriated and violently rejected as fringe groups define themselves for and against mainstream British values. Conversely, in the mainstream itself the poppy has become a focus for patriotic sentiments that cannot easily be expressed in other ways. Finally, this essay has shown that in recent years, Remembrance has strengthened its grip on the nation’s cultural practices. In the process, poppy-wearing has become as much about political correctness and public performance as it has been about the remembrance of the dead. The poppy’s meanings have evidently changed since John McCrae saw it blossoming in the fields of Flanders, but that little red flower continues to feed off the carnage of a catastrophic century.


1 FIFA, ‘Regulation 54.1’, Equipment Regulations, 1 April 2010,

2 ‘Prince William demands Fifa u-turn on poppy ban’, BBC News, 9 November 2011,

3 FIFA, ‘Statement on England shirts and the use of the poppy’, 5 November 2011,

4 ‘FA Statement: Remembrance Day’, 9 November 2011,

5 For the full and often disputed story behind the poem, see John F. Prescott, In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae (Erin, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1985).

6 An example of this interpretation is found in Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 248-50.

7 See Moina Michael, The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Field Memorial Poppy (Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance and Co., 1941).

8 These figures were given to me by the Royal British Legion.

9 The Royal British Legion, ‘The Nation Remembers’,

10 ‘Poppies and “Heroes”’, The Guardian, 5 November 2010,

11 ‘Stop the War bids to reclaim 11.11.11 Remembrance Day for peace’, 6 November 2011,

12 These arguments were made by the Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. ‘Remembrance Sunday: Queen’s composer says he will boycott poppies’, The Telegraph, 14 November 2010,

13 A. Bloxham, ‘Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice protest’, The Telegraph, 11 November 2010,

14 ‘Poppy row: English Defence League climb onto roof of FIFA HQ’, The Mirror, 9 November 2011,

15 Revd Tomas Walsh, ‘Lest we forget who they honour’, Irish Independent, 14 November 2007,

16 ‘Prince William demands Fifa u-turn on poppy ban’, BBC News, 9 November 2011,

17 Paul Revoir, ‘I won’t surrender to “Poppy Fascism”: C4 News host Jon Snow refuses to bow to viewer demand to wear the emblem’, Daily Mail, 3 November 2010,



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